When there were far fewer people around, far fewer laws and regulations, when the legal speed limit was 75 mph, when gas was cheap, when driving was a pleasure, if you owned a hot machine you could point the grill down an empty road and go!

Exploring (Excerpt from "One Summer")

A photo from the Oregonian of the front of the second Lents Public School, 1910 - 1950.
The following is excerpted from the novel One Summer by Albert Drake. Drawing from personal experience, as well as historical events of Portland, Drake weaves the story of a teen in the summer of 1948 that is simultaneously nostalgic and honest. In the chapter "Exploring," the boys visit an abandoned school.
They stood within the cool shadow of the alcove at the rear of the school; on one side was the grassless playground, where huge dusty-brown grasshoppers clacked with urgency in the hot sun, and on the other side the black maw of the open door.
After circling the empty school building, testing every door, they had found this one open. “C’mon,” Horace said again, peering up the darkened stairway as if it were the abandoned fort in Beau Geste. 
Chris looked around the serrated cement column and listened— the empty streets, the dusty playground, grasshoppers—and then he turned and entered the school.
The stairwell was dark and they waited until the familiar objects materialized: the oak bannister, the narrow tongue-and-groove panelling, the foot-worn steps. The school had been in use for over fifty years, and soon it would be demolished.
The slightest noise echoed against the wooden walls, and Chris was sure he could hear the echo of his pounding heart. The halls smelled of sawdust and linseed oil; how many times had he seen Johnny Johnson (“Yonny Yonson”), the janitor, spread against the oak boards to clean up a kid’s vomit? They stood in the darkness of the main hall, dark at two on a brilliant summer day, and darker than anyone could imagine on a rainy winter day.
Inside, the school was both scary and comfortable. He remembered how after one had arrived at the school one was held in the warm classrooms and protected against wind and rain. Many days he had felt the school was cozy; the poor old cafeteria always spouted forth the delicious odor of hot, homemade tomato soup; the poor old auditorium with its folding wooden chairs brought them together for songs and Christmas plays and sometimes a flickering movie showing Sinbad or Gulliver. 
They wandered downstairs and into the gym, whose cement floor had the chill of winter. How many teeth had been chipped or broken on that cement? he wondered, probing with his tongue his own partially missing front tooth. They cautiously pushed open the door to the boys’ john, with its strange labyrinth of tall water reservoirs and pipes. Here Bobby Meersham had fallen while jumping from pipe to pipe and had fractured his skull; perhaps, Chris thought, that accident was what had made him a little nutty.
The inspiration for this story is second Lents School in Portland, Oregon, pictured below.

As others have written...
"The first Lents School at 92nd and Harold in Portland - a wooden structure built in 1902 after a previous school at another location had burned. Note the rural character of its surroundings. It only served for eight years, as in 1910 is was replaced by a new, larger brick and stone structure, also at 92nd an Harold. The newer building lasted until 1950, when it in turn was replaced by the current school at 97th and Steele."

You can purchase copies of One Summer here.

Sandy Boulevard, 1949

Believe it or not, The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has a small bit of Portland's own Sandy Boulevard on display.

Called "Hot Rods and Hangouts -- Portland 1949," the exhibit shows a slice of cruising life.  Hot rods and motorcycles squeeze between a city bus and other traffic.  In the background we see the Tik-Tok Drive-in, the old Hollywood Fred Meyer, and the Wallace Buick dealership. Even the 7-Up bottling plant makes an appearance.

That's right. In Washington, DC, "America's Attic" has deemed Portland an iconic hot-rod city.

Myles Theberge's modified 32 Ford gets a special mention, as well as John Athan's '39 Ford roadster.

Flat Out Press also appreciates the quality of Sandy Boulevard. Here's how Al Drake describes cruising Sandy and around Portland in 'Fifties Flashback: A Nostalgia Trip!

"...Most Saturday nights were balmy, at least in the tricky circuitry of memory, and after we'd finished I started the engine, turned on the lights and waited for the carhop. Then I pulled out, slowly, being cool, hoping the clutch wouldn't chatter, rapping the pipes as we headed down the road. Many nights we made the rounds of other drive-ins. On 82nd I could hit Merhar's, where many of the cycle guys hung out, then cruise through Rutherford's Triple XXX and back through Flanagan's again, just in case someone hadn't seen me. On Sandy there was Jim Dandy's, a real hot-rod hangout, another Rutherford's Triple XXX, then Yaw's, a place where the rich kids from Grant hung out, then on up to the Tik-Tok, a favorite gathering place for rodders since the 'Thirties. That might be enough or one night, my date and I might have other things to do, but if we felt like driving and if I had enough gas we'd hit Bell's Drive-In at the east end of the Ross Island Bridge, or Waddle's, or a couple drive-ins back in the west hills. Portland was a good-size city, but a few runs through the drive-ins and you felt like you knew, or at least had seen, everybody who was car crazy."

Dad's 1935 Packard

Here's a photo of me and my dad on a trip from Oregon to North Dakota. My mother is probably taking the picture. I guess we're in Montana here.

The car is a what I believe is a 1935 Packard. Both sets of doors are suicide doors. It's a flatback model so there's no trunk. As a result, we had to pack all our travel stuff in the back seat.

Earlier Packards were the standard of the world. Their motto was "Ask the man who owns one." The early ones had a lot chrome and stainless -- in 1932 or 1933 they were just loaded.

This a plain 6-cylinder, not so different from a Plymouth or a Studebaker. In the depression they had to make a cheaper car to keep customers, and it worked. They continued making cars, and the marque survived until 1958 when it merged with Studebaker. The results were some pretty unattractive cars.

I think my dad liked larger cars, which is probably why he bought this one.

This photo is in my book "Overtures to Motion," essays about the vehicles before I had a car, learning about cars, and finally getting one.

Old Stuff

The 1952 Speed-O-Rama was the second hot rod show in Portland. It was put on by the newly-formed Columbia Timing Association (CTA), consisting of members from the Road Angels and the Ramblers. As a member of the Road Angels since July, 1951, it was something I was interested in. Although I was still in high school, somehow I managed to spend four days at the Portland Auditorium hanging around the show.

 It was a big enough event that two notable cars came up from California: Earl Evan's Belly Tanker and Fred Carillo's Modified Roadster. Both cars had set records at the third Bonneville meet a couple months earlier. I picked up this poster, which had been propped against the card tire, when they were shutting down.

It wasn't a big show, only about 25 cars, but a big event at the time. The whole event felt brand new -- it was brand new. The concept of a car show, whether someone would pay money to see a car, was a new idea, since the first car show in California was only in 1948.

 Now it's all old stuff, but I still like it.

The Happy Hot Rodder - 29 Ford

Here's a happy hot-rodder showing off his 29 Ford on a 32 frame. The car is a little unusual for the year, probably 1939. It has dual carbs that are set wide apart, AutoPulse electric fuel pump on the firewall -- both modern, and wire wheels -- which is an older touch.

If you look in the background you can see the B&S garage, named for Baldwin & Sommerfelt. They ran it, but the building was owned by a guy named Ike. Later, in the 70's I met with Julian Doty who worked on cars in LA and we walked down the street from his place. To my surprise, I saw the B&S garage was still in operation, although with a different name.

By the way, Doty was the nephew of George DuVall, who invented the DuVall windshield - a boat type windshield for a car, and the DuVall hubcap - the first after-market hubcap that I knew of.  The first one had an S shape that emphasized the movement of the wheels.

In any case, this guy in the photo looks happy to be driving a cool hotrod on a sunny day. Who could want more than that?

This photo and more are in the book Flat Out.

Gasoline Alley

This old Gasoline Alley comic from 1944 is intriguing. I wonder if there was any good old stuff in Uncle Avery's garage? He's got a plan for everything. Those 34 x 3 1/2 inch tires haven't ever come back in style, tho' (click on the picture to see it larger).

Riding Bike - page 78

When putting together a book it's hard to decide what goes in, and what doesn't fit.  In the section "Dealers and Shops" of Riding Bike there's a photo of an interesting looking pickup owned by a Portland motorcycle shop called "American-British Cycle."  Here's part of the story behind that truck that didn't fit in the book.

"This was a pickup truck made from a car.  This car was built years before Ford built the Ranchero and Chevrolet brought out the el Camino. Jack Warner and Fuzzy Ball had a shop called American British Motorcycles and they originally wanted a truck that was useful to haul motorcycles. "

"Rudy Rehbein was a body man from Estacada.  They wanted him to make a flatbed with a piece of plywood behind the driver’s area. He said 'No.' If he was going to do it he was going to make it nicer.
He used the Cadillac sheet metal and blended in the back of a '51 Chev pickup cab and then they had Cadillac rear fenders on there. I don’t remember if it had a tailgate but it would carry three motorcycles."

"The car was so well done it won the Custom car class in the 1952 New Car Dealers Expo show and it was featured in Rod & Custom magazine."

"The American British Motorcycles shop lasted about a year and then the pickup was sold down to California to a motorcycle club."

"I (Drake) wrote an article about it for Old Cars Weekly, and I heard from a friend that Cliff Majhor, the Sandy Bandit, said I had everything wrong. So I called him up to set the record straight.  I had said that there were three bullet holes in the back of the cab when the police shot at it.  He corrected me and said there were four."

Portland Mayor Terry Shrunk on Hot Rodding - 1955

An excerpt from a letter from Portland Mayor Terry Shrunk to the Portland Hot Rod Clubs of 1955. The text reads:
"A special meeting of the representatives of all interested Hot Rod Clubs in the metropolitan area will be held February 1, 1955, at 8 PM in the Classroom of the Uniform Division, Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, on the 8th Floor of the Multnomah County Court House. (Those attending meeting please enter on 5th Street Side of the Court House and take Jail Elevator to 8th Floor). Registration (no costs) to start at 7:30 P.M. Your Club is invited to have two or three representatives present at that meeting.
The general purpose of this meeting is threefold:
1. To discuss the development of a drag strip or strips in this general area and to receive a progress report on the proposed Vanport strip.
2. To discuss proposed traffic safety plans in which the various Hot Rod Clubs can compete with each other on competitive basis for a suitable trophy and suitable safety awards.
3. To discuss the problem of public relations programs of the various Hot Rod Clubs in this general area, and to devise means of bringing to the public's attention the fact that most Hot Rod Clubs are made up of responsible young men and women of this community who have built up a good driving record in this community, and further that members of these clubs have developed at considerable expense and a lot of hard work on their part, some fine automobiles and have in fact contributed materially to the automotive industry in the field of safety and mechanical advancement.
It is my personal feeling that there is not enough attention given to our various Hot Rod Clubs and that the general public far too often misunderstands the activities of these organizations and in fact maligns their driving record on our streets and highways. This problem cannot be clarified by the various clubs."

Excerpted from Jacket & Plaque: Portland Rod & Custom Clubs of the 'Fifties

2nd Annual Portland Roadster Show - October 1957

Here's the flier from the 2nd annual Portland Roadster Show,  October 1957.  Admission is only ninety cents.  Sponsored by the Multnomah Hot Rod Council (MHRC) -- same as it still is today!


If you were a hot rodder in the early Fifties, it was because you wanted to go fast. And if you wanted to go really fast you bought a bike.

That desire for speed was all that bikers and hot rodders had in common. They were two separate groups, and only a few guys crossed over. That’s funny because it would seem that the two groups had a lot in common.

Hot rodders were outlaws who desired respectability, which resulted in mild schizophrenia. A hot rodder really wanted to drag it out at every stop light, but he had that NHRA decal on the windshield right under his nose, and he could read the motto, “Dedicated to Safety”. He also had his club plaque on the back of his car, and he knew that if he got caught street racing he could be bounced from the club. So he built a full-race engine and drove around town at 35 mph.

Bikers, on the other hand, seemed to know who they were. Society had deemed them outlaws and most seemed to embrace that title. They didn’t try to be respectable. You couldn’t ride a bike through an Oregon rainstorm wearing a suit, so bikers wore Levi’s, leather jackets, boots and greasy caps. They hung out at taverns, drank beer, rode noisy cycles and had a chick on the pillion. They weren’t Hell’s Angels yet, but they were moving in that direction.

My father always had one or two old Harleys around, but he didn’t fit the biker image. The guys I was in awe of hung out at Merhar’s Drive-In. That was the only place where you could get exotic food, like Coney Islands and root beer milkshakes, so anything that happened there seemed mysterious to me. From the safety of the back seat of my parents’ car I saw the row of chromed bikes parked near Merhar’s side door. They were big Harleys and Indians, suicide machines, with an occasional Velocette, Triumph or BSA. The bikers stood by their bikes, drinking beer, saying things I couldn’t hear to the passing car hops. Long after the bikers had ripped out of the parking lot I could hear the angry staccato of their exhausts as the roared up 82nd, and I was certain that they were riding to their fiery deaths.

So, naturally, when I later put my roadster on blocks after three years of using it as a daily driver, I bought a bike. The first one was a 1947 BSA twin, a real dog, a suicide machine, but at least I knew who I was.

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The Dark Side of the Fifties

These days a mention of the dark side of the 1950s conjures up images of the threat of communism, the cold war, the blacklist, the suppression of minorities and, in general, a grayness that permeated daily life. Those ideas come from movies and from pundits, most of whom were born well after that decade. From my observations, as a young guy growing up during the 1950s, communists were few and posed little or no threat. The blacklist, which is the subject of a couple recent movies, was a terrible idea but it affected a really small number of people, eg. The Hollywood Ten, etc. I can’t speak about the discrimination of minorities, because in Portland during that time I didn’t know any of any.

There was, however, a grayness, at least at times, in spite of Hawaiian shirts and chartreuse automobiles. The threat to civilization was, if not grayness, then ennui. I felt it. I worked all day at a blue-collar job. In the winter it was dark when I left work for home, and the darkness and the cold was depressing. My mother fixed dinner, hamburger and fried potatoes, or Polish sausage and sauerkraut, maybe Jell-O for dessert, and while I was always hungry and the food tasted good, the menu had a gray sameness.

In 1954 we got a television set, a boxy floor model, which at first seemed like a modern miracle; to watch a show at home was terribly exciting. But after a while I grew tired of sitting in silence in a darkened front room, watching programs featuring fuzzy images of Adolph Menjou or Ronald Coleman; everything was in black and white, of course, or a permeating grayness.

When I got bored I got in my car and drove toward hubs of people; I saw my car reflected in large store windows, a rolling brightness, blue paint and whitewall tires. But by early evening traffic had diminished, and there were few people out walking. Most good citizens were home watching the gray images on their televisions, or were already in bed, tired from a day at work and escaping into sweet sleep before they had to rise and do it all again, and again, and again, for the rest of their lives.

Seeking color, I’d park at the curb in Lents and enter Mt. Scott Drug Store; I’d walk to the rear, where the magazines were kept, and spend time reading the car magazines; when I’d read the new Road & Track, Motorsport, Cycle, I’d move on to the comic books. If there was time, if the druggist didn’t come over and remind me that this was not a library, maybe I’d glance at a copy of Sunshine and Health, where a healthy American family would be playing tennis in the nude. When the druggist repeated his reminder I’d walk across Foster and enter the Rexall Drug Store, where I’d read more publications until I was tired or was asked to leave. The big clock on the wall might read 8:30 pm.

I’d get in my car and cruise. At this hour there was almost no traffic. I cruised to the Hancock gas station at SE 82nd and Woodstock, where I could always find John McGraw, Paul Stukey, Ratchit Ass Nash, maybe Larry Grant and a couple other guys who hung out there. Every station had a bunch of guys who hung out. Looking back, I can see that they were hopelessly trapped in a web that defined the lower class, guys who had perhaps dropped out of school to take a lousy job that would prepare them for another lousy job. They were the working class, but they were certainly not communists, nor were they repressed minorities.

Then, with movement inspired by desperation, I drove south on 82nd until I got to the Harmony Inn, the street’s terminus; all beyond that was dark except for an occasional headlight. Then I cruised Foster Road until I got to 112th; ahead was the forest primeval. Anxious, I quickly made a U-turn and headed toward civilization, land of lights and color.

It was perhaps 9:30; the evening had cost me nothing, except four bits for gas. I headed for home, where the acetylene light of the television flickered against the window.

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Interview: Riding Bike in the Fifties

"Riding Bike in the Fifties" is a book that took years to put together.  For most of those years he has been writing about hot rods and custom cars.  We asked Al Drake a couple questions why he wanted to write about motorcycles.

Q: Why did you want to write this book?
Drake: In 1971 I wrote a long poem called "Riding Bike."  It was inspired by the TV show “Then Came Bronson” where Michael Parks is riding around the country on his motorcycle and getting into trouble. I did a reading of it with sound effects. After that, I wanted to put that poem together with four essays I’d written and some photographs and some old advertisements from magazines I’d bought years ago. And then it grew, with other people contributing their experiences.

Q: Who’s the audience?
Drake: I don’t know any more. I was interested in it, and I wrote it for myself. But I think there’s an underground – there are cadres of people who are interested in British motorcycles and the 50’s. I’ve never written anything with the idea of the audience in mind… just talking to myself.

Here's a newspaper clipping of Roy Burke showing off his hill climbing trophy. This picture didn't make it in the book, but we wanted to share it with you. There's a great photo of him in his Engineer Boots in "Riding Bike in the Fifties".
Q: If you had to sum it up, what's the theme of Riding Bike?
Drake: It looks back at a time when there were fewer restrictions, so I guess we should celebrate that. You didn’t have to wear a crash helmet, you didn’t have to have insurance, you didn’t have to have a big wad of cash, and there were plenty of places to ride. So I guess I’m looking back at that.

Q: Anything else you'd like to say?
Drake: It was kind of a wild time. There was less traffic, and that’s what saved a lot of people. I guess, I hope that there will always be people who want to know what it was like, riding bike in the fifties.
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Riding Bike in the Fifties

"Sometimes, on certain mornings in early fall, when there is a light fog and the air holds a hint of moisture, I can recall so clearly the sound of a single’s exhaust. The mist put a layer of moisture on the chrome, and I’d wipe dew off the seat with a rag, tickle the carb and mount the bike. Using the compression release, I’d kick the piston through until it was on compression stroke and kick it without the compression release, maybe once, maybe more, until it fired. The exhaust was crisp, sharp, with a bark as I cracked the throttle." 
 Thus begins “Riding Bike in the Fifties,” hot-rod historian Albert Drake's most recent book. It's a journey into memory, back to a time that has to be called the Golden Age of Motorcycles. British bikes--BSA, Triumph, AJS, Matchless, Norton, Velocette--had invaded roads and race tracks previously dominated by Harley-Davidson and Indian. In the open land surrounding cities bikers were blazing trails, making Hare and Hound courses. If there was a rule it was "run what ya brung", never mind about insurance, licenses, headlights, mufflers, crash helmets. There never was a time when so many were so free on two wheels.

“Riding Bike in the Fifties” is jammed with first-hand accounts of riding and racing motorcycles in the 1950s and vintage black and white photographs and illustrations. Topics range from “What We Wore,” “Where We Rode,” to “The Morning Speed Run,” and “Three-Wheeling.”

131 pages, 10 x 7 x 0.3 inches, perfect-bound (September, 2012)
Stone Press; ISBN: 0-936892-27-7; Signed copy...

Order from Flat Out Press,
or directly from the printer.
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The Maps of "One Summer"

The original edition of "One Summer" from 1979 included two hand-drawn maps that I made of the Lents area as I remembered it from the late 40's, and as it appears in the story. This large map shows the general Lents area, including directions to Portland and Gresham. In the 1979 edition it appeared on a fold-out page. In the more current edition the map was printed on two pages.

Here's the legend indicating where key points of "One Summer" occur within that map.

I also drew a detailed map of Chris' neighborhood, "downtown" Lents. It shows the old Lents grade school, Rexall Drugs, the Oregonian branch, and other features of the landscape that appear in the story.

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